The Art of Abundant Living:
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost • October 8, 2017
Scripture Lesson: John 8:1-11
Pastor Elyse Ambrose
Call to Listen
We, as people of faith, are committed to honoring God, with all we are including our bodies… which is part of why we have chosen today’s sermon topic. We realize the statistics make it inevitable that many people here have experienced sexual abuse or that scripture has been weaponized to diminish your sexual self. We acknowledge the trauma in the space, and we invite God in to speak and heal… with a breath in and a breath out. Turn to that practice as frequently as you must.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with God. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
There is abundance of life to be found in every gift that God offers us. There is goodness in them all because a God in whom goodness is encompassed has shared them. We reflected already this morning about all that is good, and there is yet another good gift… one that often does not get talked about in church settings unless it is being relegated to marriage or withheld from puberty-aged young folks or surrounded by other words like “temptation,” “sin,” or other negative framings. Most often, in progressive Christian settings, it’s rarely explored, to the detriment of those who seek to follow Jesus in all areas of their lives. So, this morning, it seems necessary that when we talk about the art of abundant living, we include this much maligned, and (unfortunately in Christian settings) secretly appreciated, gift of sex.
Now, I know that for some this topic brings a bit of discomfort for the reasons that I’ve named in the call to listen, but also because sex is considered a private matter that many prefer to not discuss in a worship service. And, here’s my confession: for my own comfort’s sake, I would not be inclined to undertake this topic for kicks. It would be much easier to talk about something else, but if it weren’t for the persons who have come to see their sexuality as a bartering tool, a tool of exchange, in order to get into romantic relationships… in order to get someone to love them; and if it weren’t for the people that condemn themselves for having any feelings besides a desire for male cisgender-female cisgender missionary sex; if it weren’t for the many people who have experienced sexual abuse who are left to feel distant from this good gift of sexuality, not having a place to go for spiritual healing because churches do not want to talk about the complexities that surround sex and power; if it weren’t for the many people who are married that never wanted to be or the many who reproduce and didn’t want to, but did so because they felt biblically (as well as socially or culturally) that they should; If it weren’t for those who use sex “do’s and donts” to demonize and dehumanize lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer folks, and for the many ways people find themselves fragmented—estranged from themselves and their God because of an unhealthy relationship to sex and their practice of it, I wouldn’t be preaching about sex. But, Christian reluctance to talk about sex, or on the other side, an ethos of repression that pervades church space has diminished the goodness of sex, and subsequently has diminished a significant aspect of ourselves as healing-deserving and wholeness-seeking children of God. And that is not abundant life.
Now, we don’t assume that everyone is having sex, nor do we presume to say that a life without sex is not abundant. Some of us don’t want to have sex and we honor that. Some of us are asexual and we honor that. Whatever one’s reasons for not engaging sex, we honor. Still, my hope is that everyone here can help a friend to get free or learn something about relating to others and oneself, and that the folks with an interest in sex can practice it in ways that adds to their lives and their engagement with their neighbor, as well as their sense of peace with themselves and God.
When we think of our own sex lives in light of today’s scripture passages, perhaps we are more drawn to the words that Paul offers than that of Jesus. “Shun fornication!” Don’t do this, don’t do that. Do do this, do do that. If we looked at other Pauline verses about sex, we would hear more of such framings. So, its familiar to many of our ears, and perhaps causes an anxious reaction. Something about sex, for nearly 2000 years, has made those who create Christian understandings clam up. Early on, the ultimate sign of virtue in Christian doctrine was virginity and adopting the life of an ascetic, being unmarried and dedicating one’s life to serving God. Then, with the Protestant reformers, marriage and the procreation of godly Christian children was the new virtue. It seems that time changes the sense of what is good and right in the church’s sight. In both the Catholic and Protestant iterations of Western Christianity, rule upon rule, do upon do, don’t upon don’t, and you might say law upon law described what was unrighteous sex and the type of sex that would reflect faithfulness to God. As time has gone on, conservative voices continue to center denial until heterosexual marriage as a best response to sexual desire. Progressives offer space for exploration, but often without offering faithful theological insights and moral frameworks. And so, the problems I’ve named— of power and a lack of love for self and disrespect of sexual partners— persist, swept under the proverbial rug, while people suffer as their actions misalign with the, unfortunately, harmful Christian sexual values they have been taught. This is not everyone’s experience, but a cursory search of resources on progressive Christian sexual morality and ethics yields very few results. This void in sound spiritual insight does not serve the body of Christ.
So, as a Christian sexual ethicist, I believe there is great value for our holistic wellbeing in exploring “good sex.” When I say good sex, I don’t only mean pleasurable sex. Pleasure is certainly part of good sex, but it’s not the whole of it. When I say good sex, I mean sex that yields the good, sex that is ethically sound, sex that reflects alignment with chosen moral values—this makes it good. Because many of us here are Christians, this faith informs our values and what we believe to be good or right. And what greater good does Christianity offer than love?
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
And, yet, so many of us are more content to run to a law, a rule, a clear do and don’t, rather than pursuing actions that reflect an ethic of love.
“Shun fornication!” There’s your sex lesson for life. The word here for “fornication” in the Greek is porneia. It means sexual immorality, lewd conduct, or a lack of chastity—that is, no sex before marriage. (As we can see, two of three of those definitions are pretty relative, subjective terms.) According to Bible scholar, Eric A. Thomas, in its time, porneia would have been used to define sexual relations that weren’t allowed based on Greco Roman sensibilities. The definition was rooted in cultural norms. In its time, it would have allowed for male citizens to have nonconsensual sex with those of any gender from lower social classes, and that would be socially acceptable. Such cultural nuance is not apparent to us. Yet, for years Christians have adhered to words, transplanted and un-nuanced from another millennia, without attention to significant factors that make for moral and ethical behavior in light of current understandings of scripture and faith, and our developing understanding of what it means to respect and to honor another’s humanity. We would not say today that its okay for someone of a higher socioeconomic status to rape someone of a lower status. So today, what do our understandings and faithfulness to God cause us to choose, ethically? What would be good sexual actions?
The do and don’t list is insufficient because it magnifies actions to the neglect of intentions. It celebrates one’s capacity to obey laws over their capacity to discern what would reflect love. A so-called good deed done from an ill heart (or not from a place of love), is no greater than a so-called sin from a sincere, loving heart. If I do XY&Z “righteous thing,” but I have not love I am a noisy gong.. a clanging cymbal… I gain nothing. I believe Paul had it correct on that one.
To this end, I offer to us today that perhaps it is less about what we do as it relates to sex, and more about how we do it, morally and ethically speaking. What makes sex “good sex” is how we treat one another... how we act in ethical ways as we engage in sex. And, isn’t that idea of right relationship at the center of all we do as Christians? For the sake of our tapping into abundant life, for the sake of our holistic healing and shalom, we need moral frameworks for sexual engagement that break free from a dead list of “dos and don’ts,” and instead give life by aligning with God's greatest commands—a sexual ethic rooted in love.
The belief that some acts, because they are heterosexual or are within marriage or are monogamous… the belief that these types of sex acts inherently please God falls short of a reflective and living and growing faith. These beliefs lean toward idolatry as they demand our unwavering devotion and refuse to create space for the Spirit. If we are people who truly want to live and walk with God, why would we exclude God from any aspect of our lives and block the abundance of good that God offers? We owe it to ourselves to pursue the good, even good sex.
Good sex could look like ensuring one gains consent because love honors the dignity of another. Good sex could look like not feigning pleasure, because love of God means honoring the good gift of pleasure, and love of another is not deceptive, and love of self is not erasing your own needs for the ego of someone else. An ethic of love could look like allowing yourself to live into your own sexual identity without shame, allowing the person whom God has called you to become to unfold before your very eyes.
I close with this edit to the words of Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, which I hope captures the spirit of faithfulness he so eagerly sought to share with those to whom he was called: “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything out of love for myself. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God. Therefore, glorify God in your body by ensuring that in all you do you love God, your neighbor, and yourself, and fully honor and enjoy every gift God provides.